Dramaturgical Critique; Oleanna by David Mamet

In pages one to seven of David Mamet‘s Oleanna1 we are introduced to the characters of John and Carol in the typical ‘fly-on-the-wall’tone of realism. These characters are a concrete representation and could easily be alive and real, particularly from the way that their lines are mapped out with idiolect and emotion; ‘JOHN: You’re an incredibly … you have no problem with the … Who’s kidding who?’ John’s opening dialogue, as he talks on the phone, proves somewhat cryptic until later on. We make an assumption that he is talking to his wife before being told, as he ends the phone conversation with ‘I love you.’ Immediately Carol is introduced, simply by her inquisitive ( and somehow innocent and childlike) question ‘what is a term of art?’. This immediately sets up a power dynamic; on one side, the older, wiser, professor concerned with business and the physical (in this case property), on the other a young female student, who seems preoccupied with the abstract, and has a somewhat dreamy tone. The dialogue is so ‘everyday’ it could be a transcript of a documentary, and there is little movement, with both characters seated, divided by the desk. All the action comes from the dialogue, at the same time subtle and brutal. The dialogue of act one is as uncomfortable to read as the subject matter of the play (sexual harassment, be it perceived or genuine.) The broken, disjointed dialogue, littered with pauses and interruptions, shows the discomfort of both John and Carol; Carol’s underlying feelings of failure and low self-worth and John’s struggle to connect with Carol and confront her about the standard of her work. Despite this disruption, the dialogue does not read slow as one would expect, but is very fast paced. This fractured dialogue is juxtaposed with the harsh interruption of the phone; ‘CAROL: …why…? JOHN: …in class I… (He picks up the phone.) (Into phone:) Hello. I can’t talk now. Jerry? Yes? I underst … I can’t talk now. I know … I know … Jerry. I can’t talk now. Yes, I. Call me back in … Thank you. (He hangs up.) (To CAROL:) What do you want me to do? We are two people, all right? Both of whom have subscribed to… CAROL: No, no…’ The phone acts as both a bridge between the professional and the personal aspects of John’s life, and a sharp interruption between John and Carol. This perhaps signals that John should keep his personal and his professional sides separate, rather than blurring the boundaries of the two. On pages one and two, nearly every line is a question, conveying confusion, and mirroring Carol’s helplessness. It almost makes the dialogue into a stutter, the repetition puts the
1 David Mamet, 2004, Oleannna, London, Methuen Drama

audience on edge as they become aware that the conversation is growing more heated and must soon come to its conclusion; ‘JOHN: No. No. I’ll tell you why. I’ll tell … I think you’re angry, I… CAROL: …why would I… JOHN: …wait one moment. I… CAROL: It is true. I have problems… JOHN: …every… CAROL: …I come from a different social… JOHN: …ev…. CAROL: a different economic… JOHN: …Look:’ The dialogue is being constantly fired from John to Carol, back and fourth, and this rhythm gives the scene the energy it has lost through the lack of movement. The simple and static placing of John and Carol at the desk across from one another begins to feel claustrophobic, and the tension is realised when John snaps at carol; ‘JOHN: Look. Look. I’m not your father. (Pause)’ There is no distinct clue as to the setting; it could be any university in the world, in any time period within the last 50 or so years. This insures that no matter what time and with what context the play is performed in, there is always a relevance, and a new take by the audience. The office as a spatial metaphor for confrontation is familiar with all of us; from discipline in a school office as children, to interviews and meetings in the workplace as adults, and the scenario is one that is instantly accepted by the audience without query. An office can also connote power, and we see John as powerful in this extract. As well as the difference in status (student/ teacher) this opening section brings up more opposing factors to explore the theme of power further; intelligence (John had written a book, Carol can understand neither this or the classes themselves) and socio-economic factors (rich/poor - Carol mentions she comes from a ‘different’ background) . Even John’s complex lexical choices connote power, especially when compared with Carol‘s simple, almost mumbling speech (although it could be said this is just the realism; it is expected that a professor would have a better range of vocabulary than a student) . Yet another way power is expressed in this extract is the aforementioned habit John has of cutting Caroloff mid-sentence, interrupting her and placing personal phone calls about his conversation with her in his priorities. There are still some signs of Carol trying to reassert herself, however timid she may be, but these are quickly pushed back down by John once more; ‘CAROL: No. No. There are people out there. People who came here. To know something they didn’t know. Who came here. To be helped. To be helped. So someone would help them. To do something. To know something. To get, what do they say? “To get on in the world.” How can I do that if I don’t, if I fail? But I don’t understand. I don’t understand. I don’t understand what anything means … and I walk around. From morning ‘til night: with this one thought in my head. I’m stupid. JOHN: No one thinks you’re stupid’ Carol repeats that she is ‘stupid’ and ‘nothing’ and there begins an interesting ambiguity,

where although in one sense, John still has the power, it could be seen that Carol has the ‘upper hand’, as Johnstarts to gave into guilt and pity/sympathy for her. This can be compared to Shakespeare, for example the relationship between Iago and Othello in Othello, in both its ambiguity, its motif of power and the assumptions made by one character towards another I.e.John’s view of Carol.